SELF-DETERMINATION – by John Powers
Self-Determination is an idea that clearly has established itself in our culture at many levels, but tonigh I am going to be speaking about self-determination as a philosophical stance from the Theosophical tradition. My intent is to direct my comments especially to those who have a minimal familiarity with Theosophy, and to convey those Teachings as clearly as possible. If I create some new confusion, my apologies – that’s on me. But we will sort it out.
The sources I have used are essays by Prof. Raghavan Iyer published in his 3- volume series, The Gupta Vidya, those are Noetic Self-Determination, The Inmost Sanctuary, Spirit, Mind and Matter, and Evolution and Consciousness, as well as other passages from theosophical literature.
The conventional understanding of the power of self-determination usually involves the image of someone who has taken the opportunities life presents to set in motion causes which will bear some desired fruit in the future. They might decide upon a course of action that will set them upon a certain career path, or perhaps they want to dedicate themselves to a certain ideal, or they want to own their own business. This is in marked contrast to the image of someone who more or less drifts along the currents and eddies of life, not knowing what particular direction to direct their efforts, or perhaps they do not see that they can make meaningful efforts in any particular direction. They are frequently characterized by a kind of “victim” attitude, as though things only happen to them; they are never the instrumental cause of what comes to them.
In our culture, the first image is the one most laudable. The self-made man is the epitome of that image, and is held up to be the highest expression of the power of self- determination. Of course, as we all know, the “self-made man” is a fiction; such persons owe too much to too many people who are conveniently left out of the picture of one’s “self-achievements”.
The power of self-determination can also be described as the knowledge of how to be an effective operator of Karma. The person who can see opportunities and make use of them by setting in motion certain causes has an innate understanding of one of the ways Karma operates in human lives to bring about desired results, but if there is an attachment to the results, Karma can also bind one to the effects of one’s actions. This depends upon the motive for action. The spiritual aspirant learns early on that one of the objectives of life is to gain a certain level of spiritual freedom – to become more and more free of the influence of desire – in order to become a more effective helper to others. Hence, because of the binding effect of Karma, the conventional understanding of the power of self-determination takes one in the wrong direction.
Most students of Theosophy would immediately note that the key to this discussion lies in what we mean by the word “self” as one of the key teachings in the Theosophical philosophy has to do with what is the true identity of a human being? Are we our bodies or minds? Are we our emotions? Our name? Our personal history? Our background and upbringing? Is the unchanging identity we seek to be found in the earthly personality – the Mr. X or Miss Y that we know as a co-worker or friend or neighbor? Or is there another dimension to each and every human being that is not evident but rather hidden in that unknown spiritual dimension deeply within and behind the persona? That hidden dimension is said to be the locus of the divine, immortal element in Man, the source of spiritual intuition, genius and the reincarnating Ego – altogether, the real, eternal Self within every human being, as distinguished from the mortal and transitory or ever- changing personal self.
So whatever self-determination might be, it hinges upon what self is determining what.
But why does this matter?
Well, this distinction is so important Theosophically that HP Blavatsky, the Teacher of Theosophy of the 19th Century, wrote an entire article about it called “Psychic and Noetic Action”, in which she draws out the difference between the impulses that originate in our psychic nature, and those that come to us from our nature. She begins her argument by opposing all those reductionist and mechanistic views that would call the entire subjective realm of consciousness merely a collection of conditioned habitual responses, over which the human being has, in the end, no control, that we are hopelessly and helplessly conditioned to respond in certain predictable ways, so that there can be no such thing as “free will”. She notes that it is incumbent upon those she calls the “occultist and theurgist” to deny those theories, and to point out that there are, in fact, many areas in human life where one can clearly observe the action of “free will”, those areas where one can make “a vital difference to one’s environment, one’s future and to our behavior patterns” – in other words, our unique and not predetermined response to life.
Speaking of the distinction between the two kinds of mental action, HPB says in this article that:
– This ‘Mind’ is manas, or rather its lower reflection, which whenever it disconnects itself, for the time being, from kama, becomes the guide of the highest mental faculties, and is the organ of the free will in physical man.
From this, we might draw the corollary that our free will is illusory to the extent that it arises from an impulse to action that originates in the personal desire nature. In other words, action that is truly free is that for which the impulse is free of desire or the emotions and is rooted in the recognition and understanding of law, or Dharma. For the lower mind to exercise free will, it must dissociate itself to some extent from the influence of the desire principle and the emotions. As it does so, it increases its degree of a truly free will.
So self-determination involves the will, as we all know from making New Year’s resolutions that collapse in no long time after their formulation, especially when it involves losing weight. We know there is a will problem at work, but what is the solution? The personal will is notoriously variable like the moon – it waxes and wanes, and often is not available when we call upon it. What we seek is a source of will without variability to inform our most important decisions – like taking a vow, charting a new course of self-correction, working towards some distant goal – that is, we are looking for a steady and constant influence that is itself rooted in That which does not wax and wane. So we are talking about more of a solar influence than a lunar influence.
Much is said in theosophical literature about this problem we are addressing – that of subjugating ourselves to the divine influence from within rather than drifting through life under the dominant influence of the personal desire nature. In The Gupta Vidya, for example, in the essay entitled “The Inmost Sanctuary”, the very first paragraph begins with the following:
– Restoration of the right relationship between the Master in the inmost sanctuary and the incarnated consciousness is gained only through a sacrificial process of self- purification. Obscuring and polluting tendencies nurtured in the mind through its misuse over many lives must be removed by a self-chosen and self-administered therapy. . . . the pristine divine ray of the Logos in man is trapped and stripped of its sovereign place in human life unless consciously sought by the aspirant. This invocation of wisdom through the supplication of the mind to the spirit was seen by the ancient Greeks as the cultivation of sophrosyne — the subordination of the inferior element to the superior. It is shown in The Voice of the Silence as the shila virtue — the attunement of thought, will and feeling to the pulsation of divine harmony, Alaya-Akasha. The mind stands as the critical link between the divine and the animal nature. The recovery and right use of the privilege of human existence depends upon the subordination of the elements of the lower rupa existence to the spiritual ideation of Arupa Manas.
Thus, the awakening of the “spiritual will” begins not by focusing on something by that name, but rather by an individual assuming the proper mental posture towards the immortal part of his being. In other words, the lower self must willingly subordinate itself to the Divine Ego, its parent, its guiding star, and the real source of all the virtues the lower self might exhibit. The essential meaning of self-determination is that it does not happen automatically – it requires effort, it requires insight and initiative, it requires a sense of timing, and it especially requires an active will.
Although the personal will may need to be strengthened, the higher spiritual will does not, as its tremendous energies can be released as obstructions to its action are removed. When released in a sustained manner, it effortlessly provides seemingly boundless energy and perseverance in the face of seemingly intractable obstacles. The biggest hindrance to the operation of the spiritual will occurs when the personal ego gravitates more toward the lower self than toward the spiritual self, when its motives are grounded in personal considerations rather than dedication to high ideals or the welfare of others. The Hermetics proposed that Behind will stands desire – as long as the will operates on the behalf of personal desires, it cannot draw upon the energies of the higher, immortal nature. To function as the spiritual will rather than the personal will requires a pure motive – such as the desire to serve and help Humanity, or at least those immediately around one. Thus the “will problem” we have is actually one of limited, personal desires, and the remedy is to elevate our desire nature so that it becomes more universal – and not personal – in nature. “In regard to all acts of creative will, an unselfish motive is crucial.”
Clearly, what is essential for that lunar self-determination to become a solar self- determination, one that is steadfast, unwavering and resolute, like our Solar orb, has to do with the effort of the pilgrim soul to increase its connection to the silent Spectator within, the immortal, noetic individuality that incarnates from life to life during the entire cycle of Necessity. Much light is shed upon this point in the essay, “Noetic Self- Determination”, in The Gupta Vidya:
– Manas itself is the basis of the higher self-conscious will, which has no special organ, but is capable, independent of the brain and personality, of functioning on its own. This noetic individuality is distinct from the projected ray of lower Manas, which is its organ, and distinct too from the physical brain and body, which are the organs of the psychic lower Manas. This source of spiritual will is characterized in the Bhagavad Gita as the kshetrajna, higher Manas, the silent Spectator, which is the voluntary sacrificial victim of all the mistakes and misperceptions of its projected ray.
The contrast between the silent Spectator and the despotic lower Manas explains the difference between the psychic and the noetic. Wherever there is an assertion of the egotistic will, there is an exaggeration of the astral shadow and an intensification of kama manas. When the projected ray of Manas becomes hard and cold, it tends to become parasitic upon others, taking without returning, claiming without thanking, continuously scheming without scruples.
The test of whether one is becoming more truly a noetic individuality rather than becoming more passively subject to the psychic elements in one’s nature is if one is reducing the sense of separateness between oneself and others, if one can enter in to the reality of those we encounter and compassionately share their interests, their trials and successes, especially the latter: Can we genuinely celebrate the spiritual and moral triumphs of others without feeling threatened, jealous or resentful that someone else has achieved something notable in their life? Are we becoming more non-violent and less judgmental towards the people who may not agree with our own thinking? Are we less aggressive towards others and more desirous of establishing firm connections with them for the sake of our mutual welfare? As Prof. Iyer says in this essay, “The altruistic use of noetic wisdom, true theurgy, is the teaching of Gupta Vidya.”
The essay, “Noetic Self-Determination”, goes on to illuminate the life of spiritual freedom that the Silent Spectator enjoys when freed from the influence of the lower nature:
– “The silent Spectator is capable of thinking and ideating on its own. It is capable of disengaging altogether from lower Manas, just as lower Manas can disengage from kama. This skilful process of disengagement is similar to what Plato conveys through Socrates in Phaedo and also in the Apology. It is a process of consciously dying, which the philosopher practises every moment, every day. By dying unto this world, one can increasingly disengage from the will to live, the tanha of the astral and physical body. It is possible by conscious spiritual exercises for the individual progressively to free higher Manas from its lower Manasic limitations, projections, excuses, evasions and habits.”
Besides these meta-psychological truths that create a strong inner impulse towards the higher, spiritual elements in our nature, there is also another, what we might call meta-historical reason, why noetic self-determination is so important to the human pilgrimage at this point of human history, and it lies in the radical changes that have taken place – and are taking place – in the impulse that drives human evolution.
The Theosophical conception of evolution describes that process as both an “involution” and an “evolution” – first, a period of immense magnitude in which Spirit descends into – or becomes involved in – matter, and a second corresponding arc in which Spirit ascends out of matter and back towards a state of Oneness with the Source of all life, light, consciousness, forms and energy. Thus, Theosophy adds to the scientific conceptions of material evolution that of an internal evolution in consciousness leading to self-consciousness and eventually universal self-consciousness. If we term this evolution of “consciousness & spiritual” evolution, we might say that during the first half of the evolutionary cycle – the involutionary arc of descent of spirit into matter – the One Spirit becomes the Many, the many different beings and life forms in our world.
But if “there is an involution of Spirit into matter, there must also be an evolution of Spirit out of matter”, and this is what happens in the second half of the great evolutionary period, as Spirit carries with it all beings in a conscious return to the Source from which all arose at the beginning.
A crucial effect of this transition of the action of Spirit after the mid-point of evolution, when the Many begins its journey to rebecome the One, is a corresponding change in the impulse that drives human evolution: whereas during the first half of this period of evolution human souls were carried along by the evolutionary force in the development of all the life-forms on Earth, during the second half of the process – that of spirit freeing itself from confinement in the grossest matter – human beings will have to take an increasingly active and deliberately conscious role in their ascent out of matter. No longer will humans be able to be just carried along without effort; we now have to learn how to be active participants in the evolutionary task. One of the essential aspects of this conscious, deliberate task is the development of spiritual self-determination, which involves self-regeneration and ultimately, the complete renunciation of the personal self.
This process of self-regeneration, focussing upon the purification and perfection of the vestures of the spiritual aspirant, accompanies the unfoldment of the mysteries of human evolution. As human beings prepare themselves for the discipleship of learning how to help the entire human race, we learn to choose a mode of living which enhances the work of developing and maintaining noetic self-determination. As Prof. Iyer further notes:
– “Each human being, every day and night, has microcosmic choices and opportunities which, if calmly understood from the perspective of the macrocosmic, enables an honest seeker to be truly helpful to the Brotherhood of Bodhisattvas. In the early stages this would be mostly unconscious to the lower mind, but entirely clear to the immortal soul. Even small differences wrought in the moral choices one makes by night and day can unlock doors for vast numbers of human beings and open pathways which will be relevant to the Races to come and the Aquarian civilization of the future. Aspiring disciples will find that sometimes just by taking a phrase or a sentence and writing it out, reflecting upon it and sincerely attempting to apply it to themselves, trying to use it at dawn, midday, the twilight hour or late at night, but always so that one may become the better able to help and serve the whole of the human race, they will tap the inexhaustible resources of Akasha.” Or the universal storehouse of Wisdom in the Universe.
Thus, true self-determination is equivalent to the voluntary cooperation with the necessities of the Universe, not kicking against that in life which one cannot change. We cannot opt out of the universal pilgrimage which we embarked upon millions of years ago; we did not chose (in the usual sense of the term) to incarnate into this life, having the parents and siblings and other family we have, and we cannot choose to not incarnate again into other families in the future. We cannot choose to not breathe the air around us, as we cannot choose to not eat food to stay alive. There are vastly more aspects to life in which we have no real choice whether to go along with the necessities of the universe. We simply must accept those necessities and we can choose to cooperate with life in all of its manifold manifestations. We can choose to cooperate with the operation of Karma. We can choose to become valuable members of the human race.
The highest form of self-determination, then, is that of the man or woman who self- consciously chooses the path of self-regeneration in the service of others, and learns, over lifetimes, skillful means by the use of which he may become one of that largely invisible tribe of the benefactors of Humanity.
We will close with the following statement from The Voice of the Silence, as it embodies some important lessons for us on the power of self-determination:
– “Prepare, and be forewarned in time. If thou hast tried and failed, O dauntless fighter, yet lose not courage: fight on and to the charge return again, and yet again.
The fearless warrior, his precious life-blood oozing from his wide and gaping wounds, will still attack the foe, drive him from out his stronghold, vanquish him, ere he himself expires. Act then, all ye who fail and suffer, act like him; and from the stronghold of your Soul, chase all your foes away—ambition, anger, hatred, e’en to the shadow of desire—when even you have failed. . .
Remember, thou that fightest for man’s liberation, each failure is success, and each sincere attempt wins its reward in time. The holy germs that sprout and grow unseen in the disciple’s soul, their stalks wax strong at each new trial, they bend like reeds but never break, nor can they e’er be lost. But when the hour has struck they blossom forth. . . .”
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